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INTERVIEW | “Hey, Boo” Director Talks Harper Lee and Her Enduring Relevance

INTERVIEW | "Hey, Boo" Director Talks Harper Lee and Her Enduring Relevance

Containing never-before-seen photos and letters, Mary McDonagh Murphy’s documentary “Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird,” explores the renown author’s life and aims to demystify the woman behind one of the most enduring literary classics of the 20th century. Murphy took some time out to answer some questions about her film via Email. The First Run Features release hits New York’s Quad Cinema and Los Angeles’ Laemmie Music Hall on May 13th.

Fifty years after winning the Pulitzer Prize, “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains a beloved bestseller and quite possibly the most influential American novel of the 20th Century. Nearly one million copies are sold each year and the novel has been translated into more than forty languages worldwide. The film version, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, won a trio of Academy Awards, and the U.S. Postal Service’s new stamp honoring Peck depicts him wearing glasses, as Finch. Behind it all was a young Southern girl named Nelle Harper Lee, who once said that she wanted to be South Alabama’s Jane Austen. “Hey, Boo” explores Lee’s life and unravels some of the mysteries surrounding her, including why she never published again. Containing never-before-seen photos and letters and an exclusive interview with Lee’s sister, Alice Finch Lee, the film also brings to light the context and history of the novel’s Deep South setting and the social changes it inspired after publication. [Synopsis courtesy of First Run Features]

Responses courtesy of “Hey Boo” director/producer/writer Mary McDonagh Murphy.

A filmmaker with a journalist’s integrity…

I have been a journalist since I graduated from college; first at newspapers and magazines and then in television. When I worked at CBS News, I produced many single topic news hours and a prime time documentary. Now I work independently, without staff or financial support, but my goal is the same: To get to the bottom of the things and tell a great story while doing so.

Why this film, why now?

My adult rereading of “To Kill a Mockingbird” made a great impression. I began researching the novel and the novelist to satisfy my own curiosity. The more I talked to people, the more I saw what a difference this novel has made – and continues to make – for generations of readers. Fifty years later, it still sells nearly a million copies a year, it’s a phenomenon.

Finding the look…

I worked very closely with “Hey, Boo”’s director of photography Rich White on the look. Since I was telling the story mainly through interviews, it was important they be clean and well lit. I think Rich did a very elegant job. Finding all the archival material was a long struggle but it was important to me to place the novel in context: Not just in its Depression-era setting but also its July 1960 publication – before the biggest explosions of the Civil Rights movement had occurred.

What she used as inspiration…

Director Leon Gast made one of my favorite documentaries, “When We Were Kings.” He shot almost all of it in 1974. It would take twenty more years for him to finish. When the movie was released in 1996 it was a triumph in every possible way. When I despaired about ever finding the money and the way to finish, I tried to remember what happened to him.

In the pipeline…

I am writing a comic novel about television news and raising money for two new projects – both too early to talk about.

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